User Researchers Are Important

“Usability testing doesn’t have to be done in labs, doesn’t require experts, and doesn’t have to be expensive.”

So says Greg Nudelman in his article for UX Magazine, “How to Perform Your Own Lean Mobile Testing.” And, all right, yes, it definitely does not have to be done in labs. It does not have to be expensive. But with regard to experts….

Well, garbage in, garbage out. A bit of user research is better than no research at all and this Nudelman guy is right that you shouldn’t give up on research if you don’t have the expert researcher. What he minimizes, though, is the risk of research when you don’t know what you’re doing. And getting bad data can be worse than no data.

What Nudelman would have you believe is that his five tips for mobile usability testing is all you need to get started. I’m sorry, but it’s not that simple. It takes training and practice to create experiments that actually answer the right questions, to work with research participants, and to effectively analyze the data. And conducting bad research runs the risk of giving user research a bad reputation when that bad research leads people down the wrong path.

What really gets me about this article, though, are passages like these:

Over 3000 years ago, people believed that the priestess of Oracle of Delphi was the only person who could deliver enigmatic prophecies from the mouth of Apollo. Today, many people believe a similar myth: that only a professional usability researcher can deliver the straight dope from the mouth of customers.

Please direct me to some of these people that hold user research in such high esteem. It would be very exciting to get taken that seriously.

Don’t get me wrong: having a professional usability researcher on your team is just fantastic. However, limiting your testing to a few hours done through this one “official channel” is contrary to the entire spirit of user experience work. The entire product team is responsible for the experience your customers will have with your product.

I’m not really clear on how having the entire product team invested in the experience of users is incompatible with having a specialist on the team to facilitate the research. If expertise doesn’t matter, why have experts of any kind? Or is there just something particularly un-challenging about user research?

It’s true that some UX teams have separate designer and user testing roles. However, in most highly functional UX teams, the roles tend to be much more intertwined: everyone fully participates in user research to the best of their ability. Furthermore, user research is not treated as a separate activity to be undertaken only by the exalted usability researchers, but instead, it becomes the center of the design process and the focus of the entire team.

Again, please direct me to these people that feel that researchers are worthy of exaltation. Seriously, I don’t understand the need for this tone. Any good researcher wants the entire team to be involved in research. The role is not to take over research and conduct it in isolation, it is to facilitate this important part of product development in the context of the team.

Imagine the same article, but substitute “developer” for “user researcher.”